Months after Egypt's mummy claim, DNA science still lagging
CAIRO, Egypt -- Months after Egypt boldly announced that archaeologists had identified a mummy as the most powerful queen of her time, scientists in a museum basement are still analyzing DNA from the bald, 3,500-year-old corpse to try to back up the claim aired on TV.
Progress is slow. So far, results indicate the linen-wrapped mummy is most likely, but not conclusively, the female pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut, who ruled for 20 years in the 15th century B.C.
Running its own ancient-DNA lab is a major step forward for Egypt, which for decades has seen foreigners take most of the credit for major discoveries here.
It's time Egyptian scientists took charge, said Zahi Hawass, Egypt's antiquities chief who spearheaded the quest to find Hatshepsut and build the lab. "Egyptology, for the last 200 years, it has been led by foreigners."
But the Hatshepsut discovery also highlights the struggle to back up recent spectacular findings in Egypt, including the unearthing of ancient tombs and investigations into how King Tut died.
So far, the science shown in the Discovery Channel's "Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen" has not been published in a reputable peer-reviewed scientific journal -- the gold standard of scientific research worldwide.
And some scientists, even ones working on the project, have raised concerns.
"I think the people at the Discovery Channel went way too much 'CSI,"' said biological anthropologist Angelique Corthals, referring to television's "Crime Scene Investigation" series.
"They think you can pick up evidence at 2 p.m. and by 6 p.m. you get results," added Corthals, a scholar at England's University of Manchester who has been helping Egypt establish the DNA lab.
In June Egypt announced that Hatshepsut's mummy had been found, and about a month later the Discovery Channel aired the documentary -- showcasing scientific breakthroughs including CT scans and DNA testing. The mummy is now on display in a glass case in the Egyptian Museum's royal mummy room.
Hawass, other Egyptian officials and the Discovery Channel all stand by their findings, even though the DNA testing is incomplete.
"So far there is some agreement and no discrepancies. The results are quite encouraging," said Yehia Zakaria Gad, a molecular geneticist who heads the ancient-DNA lab at the Egyptian Museum.
Most of evidence that led Hawass to declare the mummy to be Hatshepsut did not come from DNA but from CT scans. Those scans showed that a tooth found in a relic box displaying the pharaoh's insignia matched a gap in the mummy's jaw.
CT scans also showed facial similarities between the mummy and already identified mummies of Hatshepsut's royal relatives, as well as evidence of a skin disease that the queen may have shared with some of them.
"The reason why we went with such a strong claim was because the CT scan was conclusive and the fact that the missing tooth provided the missing clue. ... I don't think that the DNA testing will indicate otherwise," said Peter Lovering, Discovery's senior programming executive.
Now, scientists at the Egyptian Museum lab are comparing Hatshepsut's DNA sequences to the previously identified mummy of Hatshepsut's grandmother -- the first such attempt in Egypt at using this scientific analysis to verify a mummy's identity. DNA is the unique genetic code of a person and a key tool in solving decades-old crimes, establishing paternity and finding cures for diseases.
The Discovery documentary, which showed scientists extracting the DNA from the mummies, did indicate the DNA results were incomplete and did not say those results proved the mummy was Hatshepsut.
But Corthals still has raised concerns about the expectations placed on the new DNA lab.
She said the team at the Egyptian lab was under "a lot of pressure" to produce results. She said they had "very good preliminary results," but that it will still take months to verify that those results were not a fluke.
Egypt also lacks an independent second lab to review the testing. Before any DNA results can be published in a scientific journal, the Egyptian Museum lab must duplicate its initial findings -- which have not yet been completed -- and then the samples must be sent to an independent lab to be replicated.
"The ancient-DNA world goes by a very stringent set of criteria. ... One of the biggest is replication by an independent lab," Corthals said. "If you don't do it, particularly with something so famous as this mummy, no peer review journal will publish it.
"And if you don't get it published in a peer review journal, as a scientist, you haven't done anything," she said.
Hawass says he is trying to get a second DNA lab set up in Egypt. The first $5 million lab, funded by the Discovery Channel, is the centerpiece of an ambitious plan to identify mummies and re-examine the royal mummy collection.
The process is time-consuming, especially for a new lab with scientists who have little experience with mummy DNA. It takes three days just to extract the delicate DNA; then scientists must spend at least three more days completing one test on one sample. Months are needed to make a finding.
During a recent tour of the lab by an Associated Press reporter, Gad was not firm on how much more time is needed to complete initial tests on Hatshepsut, saying only that he was "nearly there."
The Discovery Channel paid for the current lab in exchange for exclusive rights to film the search for the Hatshepsut mummy. Hawass said he's offering other companies a similar deal: the rights to film a highly coveted expedition -- possibly the search for King Tut's family -- in exchange for a second lab.
"This is how I use TVs to bring technology here," he said during an interview in his Cairo office. He added that he has had nibbles about a deal, but would not elaborate.
Hawass has ambitious plans for DNA testing in Egypt, including examining all the royal mummies and the nearly two dozen unidentified mummies stored in the Egyptian Museum. He believes DNA tests will show that some royal mummies on display are not who archaeologists thought they were.
One example is the mummy of Thutmose I, Hatshepsut's father, found in the late 19th century amid the ancient sites in Luxor. But further investigation discovered that the mummy was too young to be Thutmose I, who died in his 50s, Hawass said.
"I really do believe that the Egyptian mummy project is going to be very important in revealing lots of secrets," he said.
But not everyone is convinced.
A mummy's age, the mummification process and the condition in which it was stored all contribute to a high degree of contamination and results that are not foolproof, said Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo.
"It is exciting and it can be useful. But please, use it with a little bit of caution," she said.